Brunner Family Reunion, June 16th-18th 2016

Dear Blog Community,

 My name is Anika Reichwald and I am Head of Archive and Collections at the Jewish Museum Hohenems since summer 2015. Earlier this year, Hanno Loewy offered me the opportunity to travel to New York and present at the Brunner Family Reunion. Since I’d never been to the Big Apple before, I took the chance. I was very fortunate to be invited by the Allison and Peter Cheston, the reunion’s organizers. They also gave me a tricky task: were there any Brunners in New York who we hadn’t discovered?

As you may know, many families emigrated from Hohenems at some point in the late 19th century, including parts of the Brunner family, whose descendants moved to places like Vienna, Graz, Trieste and the U.S. Beginning with this knowledge, I followed up with Peter Cheston’s suspicion regarding Arnold William Brunner, a famous architect who designed several landmarks in New York. We discovered that, although Arnold William had not been included in the Brunner family tree, he belonged to the Brunner family from Hohenems. His grandfather—also named Arnold—was one of two brothers who changed their surnames from Wolf to Brunner in 1813. The younger Arnold’s father migrated to America in the 1850s, so Arnold William Brunner was born in the U.S. in 1857. He had no children, so his bloodline ended with him—a fact that might have caused the gap in the family memories.

I was surprised to see how many Brunners were able to come to New York, where we gathered for three days to both hear about family history, the history of the Jews in Central Europe, and some very personal experiences as well as explore the city together. I learned that the family found each other again in the early 1990s and meet every three years, always in a different part of the world. Hohenems and the museum played an important role, since the very first reunion of descendants of the Jews of Hohenems (which took place in 1998) brought many Brunner family members back together. Therefore, the reunion 2017 in Hohenems, where all Jewish families will get together for the third time since the museum’s establishment 25 years ago, is a fixed date in most calendars, including those of the Brunner family. 

However, for many of these people, the bonding moment is not necessarily their Jewish origin. Instead, it is the feeling of belonging to a larger family, to a group with similar experiences and a similar history. This became quite clear when Pater Francis Wahle and Silvana Graf shared their memories and stories, touching the subject of persecution, new identities and the lost importance of whatever it means to be Jewish. I personally hope that the reunion in 2017 gives all participants the chance to not only reconnect with their family members, but also to become part of the memories of this very special place, Hohenems, its Jewish history and therefore the history of so many descendants from Jewish families, who emigrated from this town at some point.

Furthermore, I was surprised to see how many of the family members still have artefacts from their ancestors, such as photographs or documents. And I feel very honoured to be part of a place that is 1) well known to these people and 2) gives them the opportunity to preserve those artefacts, whenever the time is right to let them go. The Jewish Museum Hohenems is a place where artefacts can come back to their origins and where people know and honour the history of these (former) Jewish families. The attention the Museum gives to the genealogy of the Jews from Hohenems is certainly visible in our genealogy database, where you can find general information about 27,000 people who are somehow connected to “Jewish Hohenems.” Sharing information is the engine of our genealogical work, which is why joining a family reunion like the one in New York is so important to us. 

Last but not least, I want to thank Allison and Peter Cheston (as well as their kids Sophie and Alex) for organizing this reunion. The sightseeing trips were a great experience and rounded up my first visit of New York. I also want to thank the rest of the family for their warm welcome, all the beautiful stories they shared with me, and all the new information I gathered.

I look forward to seeing you all here in Hohenems next year.